Riveting Theater (with Puppets) – Allow me to share an experience
By Alix Cohen
Dag (about 16” tall) is walking through a haze. He looks-haunted. Kinetic, animal-like head turns snap in all directions. He mutters to himself, laughs, flicks a lighter on/off. The young man’s left hand grasps a kerosene can.
“All my life, I have heard the story of the fires…It pursued me for thirty years…” On a translucent scrim, what looks like falling snow morphs into words typed by an anxious, disheveled writer (human) stage right. Debris clutters the floor. He spills his beer. “…and it wasn’t until I grew up that I realized it was all true.”
Alma and Ingemann are Dag’s grey-haired parents. Ingemann is the fire chief. We see them at home. The boy returns to his room solitary, detached. One of several white, cut-out houses on a distant hill goes up in flames. A siren sounds. Alma looks in on her son who’s hands and head are jerking. He seems to be chortling. Catching a glimpse of mom, he quickly puts on headphones and rock music. When she reaches for him in the kitchen, he pulls away.
More buildings are now burning. Another and another. We hear crackling, whooshing, crashes. Dag is walking fast. The writer lists what burns- words appear across the scrim. The writer’s in a bar. Beer keeps appearing at his elbow. He gets drunk, hysterically laughs, cries, stumbles out. An enormous wolf with electric eyes appears on the periphery. Its head is easily more than 4’ across. Half the beast’s body is lost in blackness. It’s chilling.
An elk lays on its side-dead. It’s the size of a small pony. Two hunters stand above. One rips open the stomach. They pull out the body of an extremely thin, old man in red sweats. The writer places him in what looks like a hospital bed, lighting a requested cigarette. The octogenarian exhales smoke. “My father…,” the human types, “…When he was ten, my father killed an elk…I never had time to tell him I was a writer…”
The vargr (Norse word for wolf) stalks the writer who confronts, disappears beneath, and is then disgorged by it along with a 5’ version of the pyromaniac. Dag sits on the writer’s lap like a ventriloquist dummy. The young man blinks. His faceted eyes reflect light. His mouth moves, laughing ominously. The two whisper.
Turning, remorseless, he sees a group of glaring townspeople (all 5-5 ½” feet tall). Faces are lined, exhausted; wildly varied. Loss, pain, anger, and astonishment pervade. Are these actors!? Yes, but not human. Drums and bass swell. The whole hill is burning. A kerosene can is pushed forward by unseen hands. Dag pushes it back. Again and again. To no avail.
We see him at home again in smaller form. His parents try to connect and are thwarted. Inside the chest of 5’ Dag bursts into flame. Smoke erupts from his mouth.
“When the first fire started I was two months old…Let me put this into words before I burn…” The wolf lurks.
Ashes is extraordinary. The room disappears. One barely sees manipulating hands. Sounds are evocative, unnerving. Nuanced lighting reveals exactly what the company wants us to see-no more, leaving the rest to imagination. Large puppets are so uncannily real, we’re not sure whether they’re actors. Crosshatching of writing and dramatization is seamless. The blend of mythic and authentic works wonderfully.
I was lucky to go backstage and see the manmade figures up close after performance. Stepping over the elk corpse, across from a still menacing wolf, I came face to face with townspeople. Had hyper-realistic faces been made from life masks? They hadn’t. Suddenly one of the women blinked and turned her head. I never saw the puppeteer reach behind. It was- disconcerting.
Alas, the company has moved on, but take note and watch for them.
Ashes is inspired by true events described in the semi-autobiographical novel “Before I Burn” by Gaute Heivoll. The author’s small Norwegian town was, for a month in 1978, plagued by an arsonist. Ten buildings burned down. One week before the last was set ablaze, neighbors got together to christen Heivoll. Growing up in the shadow of the story, he later felt compelled to share it. The onstage author, Heivoll and his story’s protagonist are all tormented by beasts within/without.
The fires “… sounded as if the sky itself was being torn apart. The flames were like large wild birds twisting around one another, above one another, into one another.” Gaute Heivoll
Photos by Kristin Aafløy Opdan
Based on a story by
Director- Yngvild Aspeli
Artistic Collaborator- Paola Rizza
Actors/Puppeteers- Viktor Lukawski, Aitor Sanz Juanes, Laetitia Labre
Lighting Design- Vincent Loubiere
Sound and Video-David Lejard-Ruffet
Puppets: Polina Borisova, Sbastian Puech, Yngvild Aspeli
“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”–Frans de Waal, primatologist and ethnologist
It’s dark and though probably temperature-controlled, suddenly feels cold. The chimpanzee is alone in her (invisible) cage. There’s a neon tube light above. Space is confining. Food and items meant for observed interaction are quietly placed near the primate, later removed. All the creature intermittently hears is other apes, footsteps echoing down long halls, clanging cage doors, the buzz of electricity.
Having been raised with human children in a cross-fostering experiment, the animal is now exiled, because of advanced age or lack of funding, to a biomedical facility where primates are subjects of pathogen studies. This was once a common reality.
At the start, we watch her lying on the floor, chest rising and falling like any beast at rest. She sits up and, leaning slightly forward, scratches her nose. Arms stretch, extend, seeming to grab rings above. Chimes sound. Dinner comes and goes in a dog dish. (If only her mouth worked.)
A wood box appears. She circles, pounds, opens and dumps it, pulling out diaphanous scarves. See them float. Try to look through them. A music box plays. From the bottom of the box, the chimp removes a naked baby doll- the old kind with a soft body and hard head. She holds it to her breast and rocks. Elsewhere chimps cry out. This one covers her ears.
There’s a tea pot and mug. Opera plays. The chimp pours and drinks. Too hot. Her head turns this way and that. Where’s the music? Now it’s a wine bottle. She pulls the cork and drinks it dry. (These props push credibility) Her stomach itches. She moonwalks.
We spend an hour with the chimpanzee. She’s bored. She cleans herself. She listens for steps hoping someone will come. The space is traversed, hung from. When joined arms and legs extend, she seems to fill her space.
The chimpanzee dreams. We watch her in a jungle, swinging from vines, curling up in a tree. There are bird sounds. She swims and floats somewhere familiar, languid, happy. The platform cage floor is flipped over to reveal a tiny lit-up house. It’s the human home where tucked into a real bed, she’s stroked and sung a lullaby. We see wallpaper, a window, stars; a woman beside her. There are crickets. These are poignant, painful memories.
Waking distraught, the chimp jumps up on cage walls (a puppeteer’s chest), shakes the bars, bangs the floor, kicks, and pounds. We can practically feel her heaving. While apes can’t cry, they do mourn. Eventually exhausted, she curls up…
Black clad puppeteers are less prominent than photos imply, but more evident than one might wish. We nonetheless feel tense, sad; empathetic. Sounds are palpable.
(Note: I choose to call the ape a “she” not having seen its sex.)
Created and Directed/Puppet & Scenic Designer – Nick Lehane
Puppeteers: Rowan Magee, Andy Manjucj, Emma Wiseman
Lighting- Marika Kent, Sound- Kate Marvin
Resumes April 16 through May 5, 2019
145 Sixth Ave. (enter on Dominick Street one block south of Spring)